Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The New Environmentalists

I'm thrilled that this Earth Island Journal article is finally available online. I first read "Will Nuclear Power Split the Green Movement?" last fall. For an inside account of how the nuclear debate is playing out within environmentalism, I've seen none better.

Among mainline US environmental groups, there is nearly unanimity that nuclear power remains as bad an idea today as it was during the heyday of the Diablo Canyon protests. But at the grassroots level, opinion is split.

Embedded in the energy debate is a deeper discussion of expectations and ecology. That is, what kind of world do we want to live in?

The argument over nuclear power reveals a long-standing tension in the environmental movement between those who say there are technical fixes to the greenhouse gas challenge, and others who believe that we need a wholesale restructuring of society if we are to avoid global meltdown. To embrace a new round of nuclear reactor construction is to say that we can have our climate and eat all the energy we want, too; it is, in some ways, a maintenance of the status quo. To oppose nuclear power is to suggest that we need to reform the ways in which we live. For if we can find a way to create lifestyles that don’t demand as much electricity, then the nuclear question is moot.

The admission that large numbers of people within the environmentalist grassroots are pro-nuclear is vitally important. These people are the greatest allies that nuclear power has. For instance, this guy. And if the contest is really between a "revolution in human consciousness" and new nuclear plants, we've already won the war.

Pavel Podvig on Russia's Military "Resurgence"

Interesting piece by Podvig in the BAS- read it here. His conclusion:

It's hardly surprising that the military-industrial complex is pushing the "resurgence" agenda--generals always fight the last war. There's little doubt that they will convince the government to keep its number of missiles and submarines at a "respectable" level. Or that the military will be able to maintain these missiles at a reasonable degree of readiness. With a strong economy, Russia can certainly afford strategic forces that would be considered impressive by Cold-War standards. But these standards are irrelevant today and the strategic forces designed to fight the Cold War are useless when it comes to the security threats that exist today. Therefore, this "grandiose resurgence" will eventually prove unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous.
I disagree on one of three points. Russia's strategic buildup is inarguably expensive, and almost certainly dangerous. But I feel that it may be far more "necessary" than Podvig gives it credit for. Firstly, the arms race has its own perverted logic. The only reason these systems were ever "needed" was to match the other side, and despite the end of the Cold War this still makes as much "sense" as ever. Secondly, the possession of a credible nuclear deterrent increases the freedom of the Russians in their own "sphere of influence" quite a bit, which could prove important as they move to secure their strategic interests- most importantly, the energy resources of the Central Asian former Soviet republics. While the Russians do not need to conquer these countries, they need to ensure that the region remains under Russian economic and political domination. Losing this domination would weaken the Russians politically and economically to an extent I believe that Putin probably regards as totally unacceptable. So long as the Russians can match the US in nuclear weapons, the United States will have a difficult time doing something like, say, providing military support to prop up an anti-Russian Kazakh government. They can threaten us with nuclear annihilation- and if we impinge on their interests and pride enough, they will.

So Much for Surviving the Nuclear War in Comfort and Style

You know the Greenbrier? The famous resort that formerly housed the Emergency Relocation Center where Congress would have ridden out the nuclear war?

Despite their best efforts, they just can't get that fifth star back.

Since this is one of the things I study, I feel compelled to launch into a little explanation of how the Greenbrier fit into United States Civil Defense. In brief, the Greenbrier, and its companion facility Mount Weather, were not really civil defense facilities per se. This is because they are continuity-of-government facilities, and for much of the Cold War this was the responsibility of non-civil defense authorities. Under Truman and the first Eisenhower Administration, CoG was the responsibility of the Office of Defense Mobilization, a largely-forgotten government agency that was endowed with extraordinary powers. Although the Federal Civil Defense Administration has received the bulk of attention from historians, the ODM was in fact far more important, and its records clearly indicate the utter seriousness of US nuclear war planning in the 1950s. In 1958 the ODM and the FCDA were merged into a single organization- the OCDM. Ostensibly this was to improve planning for nuclear war by reconciling the often contradictory plans cooked up by the two organizations, but I suspect that it was in part an attempt to neuter the ODM. Anyhow, in my own research I have attempted to determine how the construction of the massive CoG facilities built in the OCDM period was financed, and I have concluded that there is no way the could have been funded out of the OCDM's minuscule budget. I suspect that their construction was funded and managed through DoD somehow, especially as they had built a CoG bunker of their own a few years earlier.

This is not to say that civil defense lacked its own bunkers from which to direct the post-nuclear recovery. The OCDM built a small one in Texas, but it was tiny compared to Mt. Weather. There was also a facility called the National Damage Assessment Center, which was built by the ODM in the mid-1950s. I am not sure where this facility was located, although I know it was in the same "arc" around Washington as the other CoG facilities. It must have been pretty elaborate, however, as it housed an IBM computer that was probably tube-based, and must have had a power supply and environment control that could deal with such a monster. The original purpose of the NADAC (I believe I read that this was its acronym) was to manage post-nuclear economic recovery. I do not know what became of it in the JFK/LBJ years.

I'd love to know more about the Soviet equivalents of all these facilities, but anything more than anecdotal evidence is hard to come by. Interestingly, there is a Cold War museum in Moscow that is housed inside a disused blast shelter. But I know of no account in either English of Russian that gives even the roughest outline of Soviet CoG planning.

No Hair Shirt?

From Gar W. Lipow's Cooling It! No Hair Shirt Solutions to Global Warming:

Hotter than the Sun: The Mandatory Section on Nuclear Electricity

Inexpensive sustained net-energy fusion would be wonderful if we had it; but we don’t.

The last time we built nuclear power plants in the U.S. their capital costs averaged over $3,000 per KW in mid-80s dollars.

The nuclear industry insists that modern plants could be built more quickly and would cost much less; they promise their plants won’t end up costing four to seven times budget as they have in the past.

The pebble bed reactor is one example often promoted of a new generation technology for producing less expensive, safer fission reactors. The consortium building a pebble bed reaction in South Africa has finally revealed the cost – just short of $9,800+ per KW in capital costs
; that cost has no chance of falling, but may yet increase.

We can build solar thermal with storage at two thirds of that price, fully dispatchable wind at one third – and not have to worry about uranium mining, waste transport and storage, and the liability issues (which in the U.S. are dealt with through the special privileges of the Price/Anderson act not given to any other power source).

Wait, where's the argument? Where's the per-kWh cost comparison? What about the fact that the existing nuclear plants ultimately became highly profitable despite the massive initial cost overruns?

I'm also impressed how he knows that technologies that we do not have are cheaper than nuclear (although his argument is weakened by the fact that he chose to compare these conjectural technologies with a novel type of nuclear plant; installed costs for an AP-1000 stand to be around 1/3 of the stated figure too, with capacity factors 3x as high. At least I think so; I have no idea what his terminology is supposed to mean, so I have to guess.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

TAPPED on New Nukes


Via the Foreign Policy Passport blog, an update on the so-called "renaissance" in nuclear power usage in some European countries. Britain is scheduled to increase deployment of new power plants. But for all of the talk about nuclear power being a potential solution to the problems of a carbon-based economy, the same challenges associated with nuclear power 30 years ago are still with us today. Has an acceptable alternative to "burying nuclear waste where no one will ever find it" ever really emerged? What about the costs associated with the "new" security threats of the post-9/11 world?

Organized opposition to nuclear power isn't going away any time soon, but neither is the fascination with -- and reliance upon -- technological solutions to our energy problems.

And while Obama has yet to truly prove he can live up to his rhetoric and lead, this example shows that he is willing to engage in some sense of personal responsibility and civic duty when it comes to energy consumption, rather than relying upon the easy punt afforded by technological solutions.

I think that the author is new to this, or at least has never heard of Amory Lovins (or Jimmy Carter.) Conservation isn't new. Anyway, I put my two cents' worth in as a comment, responding to a particularly silly statement someone made that "...solar and wind are absolutely as reliable and controllable as nuclear, and can be generated in huge quantities. And the problem of storing solar and wind generated electricity (for use at night/calm days) is far more easily solved than the problem of what to do with nuclear waste."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Not Nuclear

This is one of my all-time favorite vintage records, "William Tell Fantasie" played by Charles Daab on xylophone. First issued as Edison Blue Amberol 1730 in 1913. Here played on an Edison Amberola 50 which seems to have lost its lid.

I know it's off-topic, but I wanted to share.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Not Cool

From It's Getting Hot in Here: U.S. Going Nuke-ular?
This Monday Congress agreed to guarantee loans for up to 80% of construction costs for new nuclear reactors. The legislation directs the Department of Energy to provide $20.5b for nuclear energy, $10b for renewables and $8b for “clean-coal” technology.

Numbers don’t lie. Only $10b of almost $40b in this bill is going towards the solution. What Congress is saying with this allocation is that renewables come in a distant second behind the already proven dangerous nuclear option.

What can be done to impress on Congress the need for real investment in real renewable energy? Focus the Nation teams have invited more than 140 members of the House and Senate to come to their campuses and discuss global warming solutions. That means about 400 of them still need to hear from you.

There’s another number of note here. Even if we generously assume that all the historical safety issues with nuclear reactors have been solved and that we can adequately secure them from terrorist attacks, nuclear power has a very low EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) ratio. Depending on whose numbers you use, nuclear plants may in fact take more energy to construct, maintain and deconstruct than they generate over their lifetimes, which is to say the EROEI is less than one.

Wind turbines have an EROEI between 18 and 25, and produce no emissions. Could it be any clearer?

Apparently it needs to be made a whole lot clearer to decision-makers in D.C. On Jan. 31, hundreds of local and state elected officials are already committed to engage with us on global warming solutions. It’s time to turn up the heat on Federal legislators and demand their attention.

This is seriously funny stuff, especially given the pro-nuclear website the author linked to to prove nuclear power is "dangerous." (Someone apparently never mastered critical reading.) On the other hand, the author's editorial policy towards skeptical commenters was trollish and embarrassing- he inserted editorial comments into their statements:
“Already proven dangerous nuclear option.” What information do you have to prove that nuclear power is dangerous? The following website lists the main energy related accidents since 1977; http://www.uic.com.au/nip14app.htm. As you can see, the Russian Designed RBMK-1000 in Chernobyl was the only reactor to produce catastrophic results and fatalities, far less than the other popular forms of energy. [Editor’s Note: For a much more accurate assessment of the risk from Nuclear Energy - go here]
"Here" being the Union of Concerned Scientists' account of the issue. Given the initial post I must admit that I'm skeptical of the author's ability to evaluate the technical accuracy of contrasting assessments of nuclear power. (Also: pay close attention to what he says about EROI for nuclear in the comments.) Still, everyone's entitled to an opinion. But editing others' comments? Tackiest thing I ever saw. Not cool.

But I can't say I'm worried. As has been declared in the UK, "the debate has moved on."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nuclear Power: "Endangered" by Drought?

An AP story has been circulating declaring that nuclear power in the southeast is "endangered by drought," and that the current situation is "becoming a crisis." It quotes North Carolina's homegrown antinuclear group, NC WARN, in claiming that "Water is the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel." Since I'm currently living in North Carolina, I'd like to offer my take on the situation.

The genesis of the problem, in my view, is neither the existence of a drought, nor some inherent shortcoming of nuclear power. It is true that the existing plants in the region were not designed with these circumstances in mind. But all this was known, and it should have been included in the water management practices of the region. The real snafu was in the failure to manage the region's water resources more conservatively. It's only been relatively recently that many of the local municipalities have tried to rein in water use. I believe this was due in part to an expectation that the hurricane season would replenish the water reservoirs, which didn't happen. Because of the lack of coordinated action and the wishful thinking of our state and local leaders, we are facing some dire consequences that will hit the poor especially hard. If conservation measures had been in place earlier and energy infrastructure had been prioritized in water outlays, we would be in far better shape overall. Instead government incompetence and irresponsibility has left us in a situation where we stand to lack for water and electricity.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

James Hansen on New Nukes

James Hansen has a new piece in the Bulletin Online in which he emphasizes the need for a moratorium on new coal plants.

"...the only practical way to prevent carbon dioxide levels from exceeding 450 ppm is to phase out coal power except at plants where carbon emissions are captured and stored.

An outline of a practical way to do this can be readily defined: First, establish a moratorium in developed countries on construction of new coal power plants until effective carbon-capture-and-storage technology is viable; second, establish a similar subsequent moratorium in developing countries; and third, phase out existing coal plants over the next several decades and replace them with energy sources that don't emit carbon, such as wind, solar, and nuclear power, and coal plants with carbon capture and storage. Specifically, developed countries need to stop building coal power plants that don't capture and store carbon by 2012, developing countries need to halt such construction by 2022, and all existing coal power plants without carbon capture must be bulldozed by 2050."

"Required technology developments in clean coal, biofuels, and advanced nuclear power will produce high-tech jobs and provide a new market for international trade that could allow the United States to recover some of the wealth that it's hemorrhaging to China."

Obviously, Dr. Hansen (who is arguably the world's most famous scientific authority on these matters), does not agree with Harvey Wasserman, Helen Caldicott, the NIRS and the like that new nuclear plants are a counterproductive enterprise in the face of global warming. Quite the opposite, in fact. There appears to be a widening fissure between the scientists who are serious about global warming (like Hansen and Sir David King), and the environmental movement. I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that the scientists are the ones with science on their side.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

You Know That Thing I Said...

... about how Western militaries are no more likely to give up their nuclear weapons than the Russians?

Well, here's your proof.

It turns out that NATO's top military commanders do not regard the threat of nuclear war as a fading memory, but rather as a real and growing possibility.

"The risk of further [nuclear] proliferation is imminent and, with it, the danger that nuclear war fighting, albeit limited in scope, might become possible," the authors argued in the 150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures. "The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."

Naumann suggested the threat of nuclear attack was a counsel of desperation. "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many options to stop it. We don't know how to deal with this."

I'm not sure if I quite follow the logic here. It seems to me that threatening countries with nuclear attack will only encourage them to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent. On the other hand, it's not like I have a snappy alternative solution. The authors make clear, however, just what they think of Kissinger et Al's musings on nuclear abolition:

The former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands insist that a "first strike" nuclear option remains an "indispensable instrument" since there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world".

Monday, January 21, 2008

Economic Literacy is in Short Supply... Even Among Economists

This op-ed recently appeared in the News and Observer: N.C.'s Greener Energy Future
It makes many of the same fundamental economic errors made by Amory Lovins, except in this case the author is not an "energy guru" but rather a professor emeritus of economics from Duke University. I find this quite mystifying, but honestly the entire exercise is quite sharply out of sync with reality. The author sets up a false dichotomy between "renewables and efficiency" and "coal and nukes," as if these two were an either-or proposition. Although there's a lot to criticize here, I'll point out a few things that stood out:

"Beyond that, the renewable sources represent relatively minor and invisible changes in the energy system. There would be upgrading of some hydroelectric stations, some generators installed in existing dams and some run-of the-river generators."

I'm living in North Carolina right now, and there happens to be a rather significant drought at the
moment. Indeed, it's the worst one since records began being kept. Cities and towns all over the state are imposing water restrictions. At this rate, new hydroelectric systems are not in our future. Indeed, we need to upgrade our infrastructure just to supply our domestic water needs.

"La Capra concludes that turning to these power sources would create thousands of new jobs -- far more than would be created by building and operating more coal and nuclear plants. And clean energy jobs could be distributed across the state, rather than concentrated in one or two counties."

If I may be so bold, I would like to refer the reader to my post in which I address this subject at length.

"North Carolina is standing at a clear fork in the road. One path, preferred by most of the public, involves developing our renewable electricity sources and using all of our electricity much more efficiently. This choice also avoids adding still more greenhouse gases, as we see ever more clearly the risks posed by global warming.

The other path, unaccountably favored by the large utilities, leads to huge and risky investments in coal and nuclear power plants. The utilities' shareholders and ratepayers, along with taxpayers, would bear the risks of huge investments in those obsolete and archaic behemoths, while the rest of the nation moves belatedly into a new energy era."

I don't even know how to address this argument. There's no reason why investing in nuclear power, efficiency, and renewable energy simultaneously is not a viable plan for addressing global warming; just look at England. Indeed, the entire argument appears to be founded upon a false premise.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Russian Military on Nukes

"We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand ... that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons."
- General Yuri Baluyevskii

Again, I must reiterate my belief that the Russians are not abandoning nuclear weapons anytime soon. See the full BBC article here.

I Have Ridden the Atomic Bus

Behold the zero-carbon public transit of the future. From the past. And the USSR.

The "trolleybus" (Russian: троллейбус) is a trackless electric vehicle powered by overhead wires. They're quite ubiquitous in Russia, and have been for many decades. This particular example is a ZiU 682B, produced in Engels (in the Saratov Oblast') in 1973. The picture, however, was taken in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg.)

In St. Petersburg in particular (although in a fair number of other Russian cities as well), these homey conveyances are powered by nuclear energy, thanks to the proximity of nuclear power plants. In St. Petersburg, the primary source of electric power is the Leningrad Atomic Power Plant (Ленинградская Атомная Электростанция). The first unit as the LAES entered service in 1973. The plant consists of four one-gigawatt RBMK reactors, the last of which entered service in 1981.

If the Soviets could do in 35 years ago, why can't we?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wittner on Abolition

Peace historian Lawrence Wittner has written a piece in response to the letter published in the WSJ on nuclear abolition. As he points out:

One would find this position remarkable were it not for the fact that most people around the world already agree with it. Polls over the last decade have found overwhelming support for a nuclear-free world. Asked if Britain "should help to negotiate a global treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons," 87 percent of Britons responded affirmatively. Queried as to whether all nuclear weapons should be eliminated, 78 percent of Japanese agreed. When Germans were asked if the nuclear weapons states should "start getting rid of their own nuclear weapons as soon as possible," 87 percent backed the idea. Asked if the nuclear weapons states should abolish their weapons, 61 percent of Russians expressed approval. Even the citizens of supposedly nationalistic Third World nations have shown a strong aversion to nuclear weapons. Asked if their country should produce nuclear bombs, 63 percent of Indians said "No."

I feel this misses the point, however. My own understanding is that the nuclear arms complexes of both the United States and Russia are extremely capable of resisting outside pressure. For another example, look to Britain- despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Britons endorse the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons, as attested by Wittner's own numbers, Parliament voted last year to replace Britain's Trident submarine fleet. It doesn't matter if the masses and (former) policymakers agree on a nuclear weapons-free world; all that matters is if the tiny cabals that decide such matters could be made to change their minds on this issue, and that seems extremely unlikely.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Dream I Wish I Could Believe In

The Wall Street Journal has published a new letter by George Schultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn on the question of eliminating the world's nuclear arsenals.

I agree with Pavel Podvig that the concrete steps listed in the letter should be taken as soon as possible. But I must admit that I am skeptical that they will bring us much closer to a world free of nuclear weapons. They are good, practicable measures that will make the world a safer place; but the reality of the situation is that there are vital strategic and political reasons why the Russian government will not be interested in disposing of nuclear weapons completely.

On the first point, nuclear weapons are the backbone of Russia's strategic offensive capability. The skeptic will scoff that this is meaningless, as "everyone knows you can't use nukes." This objection, however powerful it may seem in the light of 63 years of experience, is in fact a mere cultural construct. There is no physical reason why the Russians cannot lay waste to the United States, and while they would receive a response-in-kind, this does not mean the threat is meaningless or nonexistent. There are credible circumstances under which the Russians might feel that such threats were necessary in order to restrain the United States, and while I hope that no such circumstances are in the offing they must be the focus of Russian war planning.

Politically, nuclear weapons play an important role within Russia proper. Russia's nuclear arsenal is the foundation of Russia's great-power status, in which the Russian people take intense pride. Despite the economic windfall afforded by high energy prices, Russia's claim to a prominent place in world affairs is largely due to its status a nuclear superpower, not to any great economic or military capability. And the prospects for Russia becoming world-class in either economic influence or conventional forces are dim. The current economic boom is based on exports of oil and natural gas, and it is predicted that these reserves of these resources will decline after a few decades. Russia's demographic problems pose probably insurmountable challenges to future governments hoping to field world-class military forces. In a world without nuclear weapons, Russia's influence and power would almost certainly be greatly diminished.

As a student of Russian history, I have difficulty imagining that the Russians will be content to sit back and allow themselves to fade into obscurity. Indeed, it seems that the Russian government is working to avoid this possible outcome. And I believe that the Russians' project to modernize their nuclear arsenal is central to this goal. The mobile Topol-M launcher, the Project 955 submarine, and the Tu-160 bomber are insurance against a future in which Russia is irrelevant and eclipsed by powers such as China and India. Why would the Russian government abandon these investments to their great detriment and the de facto enthronement of American strategic hegemony? Indeed, to expect anything different from the Russians would be foolish.

This does not mean that the Russian government is opposed to disarmament. Quite the opposite, in fact- Putin has expressed an eagerness to negotiate further arms reductions on multiple occasions, only to have his proposals rebuffed by the United States. But I suspect that the Russians see disarmament talks as an opportunity to adjust the balance of power in their own favor, rather than as a step to a nuclear weapons-free world. They have hinted strongly that they would like to include the issue of American conventional forces in future talks- a likely deal-breaker. But I am quite confident that they would gladly sign a treaty that called for nuclear arsenals strictly limited to 1,000 strategic warheads apiece, and possibly fewer. This goal should be pursued. However, it is not really a step to a nuclear weapons-free world. As far as the Russians are concerned, it's a step towards a world in which American military might is more constrained- a goal which they are likely to view as incompatible with the abolition of nuclear arsenals.

Lest this be dismissed as an expression of imperialistic expansionism on the Russians' part, can it really be believed that the American government would behave differently under similar circumstances? Indeed, is it really believable that the US military would give up its nuclear weapons, especially given that the Russians cannot be expected to relinquish theirs?

I must conclude, sadly, that nuclear weapons are here to stay. They are not going away because they're too useful. They really do confer strategic influence and power on their owners. And while the world would be better off without nuclear weapons, the Russian state would not be. So however noble the goal of eliminating nuclear arsenals appears, I cannot regard it as anything more than a pipe dream. Still, it is vital that we work to keep the "bad old days" from coming back. And the proposals provided in the letter are an excellent place to start.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Who Watches the Watchers?

I really wish that I could do some good by editing this thing.

I was dismayed when I found it, as it is a blatant editorial piece masquerading as an impartial assessment of the ability of nuclear power to address climate change. It concludes, on the basis of a few dozen regurgitated anti-nuclear talking points, that:
Past experience, and current experience in Finland, suggests that new reactor programmes may even struggle to meet the carbon reductions expected of them. And in future carbon emissions from the nuclear life-cycle may climb to unacceptable levels. Clearly nuclear power is one of the worst, if not the worst way of tackling climate change.
Unfortunately, when I went to see who wrote it, it turns out that the entire thing was penned by the editor of SourceWatch, Bob Burton. This wouldn't be worthy of a response, except for the supposed editorial policies of SourceWatch:

Be fair
Propagandists engage in selective presentation of evidence. Articles written for SourceWatch should strive for a higher standard, by summarizing all evidence and points of view on a subject accurately and thoroughly.

Somehow I doubt that this standard will be upheld if I try and rewrite the article so that it actually acknowledges the existence of a pro-nuclear point of view, much less admits that such a position is worthy of consideration. I'm too timid to try (and I'm behind with my class reading about the history of the medieval Rus'), but I'll invite braver souls than myself to take a crack at editing the editors own work so that it upholds his own policies.

This Will make Your Brain Hurt

Check out the document that Greenpeace put out claiming that the UK doesn't need new nuclear plants.
It's predictably unconvincing, but the problem is that it's not merely poorly argued: much of it is just plain factually untrue.

Take this gut-buster, for instance:

“We need baseload, and renewables can’t supply that.”

We also need what’s known as baseload – guaranteed electricity to meet constant demand - and Britain can generate it with low-carbon technologies like CHP and some renewable technologies like tidal, biomass, biogas and hydro. More efficient use of fossil fuels also has a part to play.

This would all be well and good- except that Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is NOT a low-carbon technology, and it's no more efficient at producing electricity than other types of fossil fuel plants. And the last sentence an admission that Greenpeace's answer to nuclear is more fossil fuels, and given current technology, more CO2 emmisions.

Also take this clunker:

“If we don’t go for nuclear we’ll be dependent for gas on unstable regimes like Putin’s.”

The real threat to our energy security is interruptions to our oil supply. However, essentially all of Britain’s oil is used for transport and cannot be replaced by nuclear electricity. Much has been made of the threat of becoming over-dependent on imported gas, particularly from Russia. Unfortunately, half of our gas is used directly for domestic space and water heating and cannot be replaced by electricity.

I was unaware that space and water heating could not be accomplished with electricity. I was under the impression that my grandmother's house featured these apparently impossible technologies, but I guess that its warmth and hot water is simply a figment of her 91-year-old imagination. (Seriously, this is technology that was widespread in the US before my parents were born.)

If this is typical of their work, it seems that they pose no great threat to the UK's energy future- which is a blessing to both Britain and the world.

Is the BFS impartial?

The recent study produced by the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection definitely appears to be... methodologically dubious, to say the least. The fact that most of the discrepancy is the result of one infamous (and much studied) cancer cluster implies that the results are a fluke. But what interests me is the fact that the BFS seems to be intentionally spinning the results in the most onerous possible way:

The German researchers behind the new study, published online in the International Journal of Cancer, said they did not know whether radiation from the plants played a role in the cancers.

However Wolfram Koenig, director of the BFS, said: "Given the particularly high risk of nuclear radiation for children, and the inadequacy of data on the emissions of nuclear power plants, we must take the correlation between distance of residence and high risk of leukaemia very seriously."

Does anyone know if the entire study was an exercise in preconceptual science intended to legitimize the Germans' notorious anti-nuclear biases? It kind of looks that way to me.

Also, does anyone have any bets on how soon the Germans will reverse their anti-nuclear position? Given what will happen if they actually start shutting their plants down on the current schedule, they can't keep up their wishful thinking for too much longer. They seem to be so far gone, however, that it may actually take the widespread environmental and economic catastrophe that will result from this pig-headed policy to result in such a shift. Still, it can't be more than 15 years max.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

England Heading Back to the Future

The long-anticipated announcement from the British government endorsing new nuclear construction has finally been made public. This is, of course, very good news for Britain, as the closure of existing nuclear plants there over the next two decades would probably have posed insurmountable challenges for British electrical infrastructure. It is also a critical step in the ongoing nuclear renaissance, and a massive defeat for the anti-nuclear power movement worldwide. Indeed, events unfolding in Britain have simultaneously disproved a number of longstanding canards that continue to be repeated by nuclear power opponents, and I believe it wise for advocates of the technology to familiarize themselves with events in Britain as ammunition for debate.

The Labour government has followed a long and twisted path to reach its current position of nuclear power. I must admit that I find an enormous amount to dislike in "New Labour," as it was dubbed years ago, but this is one area where I think they've gotten it right. What cannot be emphasized enough is that Labour would never have come to endorse this position without regarding it as an urgent necessity, as nuclear power is an enormous political liability in Britain. Indeed, the evolution of Labour's Energy White Papers over the last few years is indicative of this. In 2003, Labour seriously proposed the kind of gargantuan renewable energy scheme favored by so many environmentalists. Thousands and thousands of windmills would dot the British countryside and coast, shuttling power from one part of the country to another via a high-tech "supergrid." This was, of course, pleasing to the environmentalist lobby; but when figures both within and without the UK government studied the physical implications of the scheme, they were dismayed to discover that it simply wouldn't work. Indeed, it is from the research inspired by this quandary that we have the best-balanced and authoritative analyses of renewable energy (that I've seen, anyhow): the success of renewable energy is a political necessity in Britain, and the British were forced to grapple with the real-world impossibility of this. And today we saw the fruits of their discoveries: the final admission that Helen Caldicott is wrong and that nuclear power is the answer.

What is perhaps even more instructive than the British political reversal on nuclear power is the fact that both Labour and the Tories insist that nuclear power is to receive no subsidies, but that private industry is actually stepping up to provide the capital. This is because the British government is in fact subsidizing new nuclear plants, albeit not in the usual sense of the term. British policy guarantees that no new fossil fuel plants will be built there anytime soon, as carbon capture and storage are not yet economical (and if current trends hold, may never be). At the same time, the impending closure of the existing nuclear plants, along with existing fossil fuel plants under Britain's ambitious plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, guarantee ample demand for electrical generation in even the near future. Although the government is still planning to construct innumerable windmills, these do not really pose and serious threats to nuclear generation. Indeed, electricity prices in the UK are probably going to increase dramatically in the next few decades, even with the new nuclear plants. So at least in Britain, nuclear power is a pretty sure bet. The investors may not make back their money for 10-15 years, but after that they are likely to roll in a near-inconceivable amount of lucre for their troubles. If anyone tries to tell you that nuclear power is uneconomical, you might be wise to inform them of Britain's example. Hopefully it'll finally get Amory Lovins to stop repeating his ridiculous line about "no private risk capital in nuclear power," but somehow I doubt that'll happen.

But in any case, today was a landmark for nuclear power. Although I won't consider the anti-nukes truly defeated until the German government makes the same reversal (and however improbable that seems now, in a few decades they'll probably have no choice), the world is truly going our way.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Does The Power to Save the World Have What It Takes?

I received a copy of Gwyneth Cravens' new book, The Power to Save the World, as a Christmas gift and read it with considerable interest. I found the book interesting and informative overall, but I couldn't help but wonder if it is up to the task for which it was written- that is, to convince nuclear power skeptics to reconsider the issue. This is no small order, as I'm sure anyone who has followed the nuclear power issue with any interest is well aware.

As I was reading the book, I attempted to imagine what a hypothetical nuclear power opponent would make of Cravens' arguments. I realized, however, that I simply don't understand the thinking of your typical nuclear power skeptic. Having grown up in Oak Ridge, I have never conceived of nuclear technology as exotic, or particularly dangerous. Because of this, the stereotypical arguments against nuclear power that essentially prey on public anxieties stemming from its supposedly "unnatural" nature have always struck me as bewildering and laughable. Because of this, the mind of a nuclear power opponent is simply alien to me.

One of the heartening developments of the last few years is the fact that people of my generation seem far more open-minded about nuclear power than those of a few decades ago. Indeed, many self-identified environmentalists in the under-30 set now hold this position, much to the consternation of older anti-nuclear activists. (There was a fascinating article about this in the Earth Island Journal a few months ago, that admitted that large numbers of young environmentalists are basically pro-nuclear, to the great consternation of their elders who run the actual organizations.) I can imagine readers in this category finding Cravens' book cogent and reasonable. At the same time, The Power to Save the World has some weaknesses that provide openings for anti-nuclear activists to attack the book.

The most serious of these is probably Cravens' coverage of non-proliferation issues. While I wholly agree with her arguments on the issue- namely, that civilian nuclear power generally and reactor-grade plutonium don't really pose great proliferation risks- they aren't supported as well as they need to be to forestall dismissive criticism. Importantly, Cravens overextends the point that civilian reactors have been divorced from weapons production. While it is true that nuclear weapons states have acquired the bomb without possessing civilian nuclear power, there is one case in which "civilian" reactors were used to bolster the stockpile of a nuclear state- namely, the early MAGNOX reactors in the UK. I can easily imagine an anti-nuclear critic latching onto a quibble like this and using it to dismiss the book as a whole. Cravens may also be too glib regarding the possibility of building weapons with reactor-grade plutonium- although I agree that this is a relative non-issue, the book's failure to really grapple with this issue opens it up to attacks of the sort that the Nuclear Control Institute used to perpetrate.

I hate to sound so negative of the book. Although the overall argument was anything but shocking to me, I learned quite a bit. The sections on Subseabed and WIPP were particularly well-done, in my opinion. I had honestly always thought that Subseabed was simply crazy, and was surprised to learn that it was a far better-reasoned idea than I'd assumed. A particularly delightful part of the book is its introduction by Richard Rhodes. His own brief account of his own journey from being a nuclear power skeptic in the 1970s to being a proponent of the technology today is particularly powerful, especially since Rhodes became a reknowned authority on nuclear weapons issues in the intervening years. But does it have what it takes to change the minds of nuclear power skeptics? I'd love to hear any accounts you might have of how readers who weren't already in favor of nuclear power responded to The Power to Save the World.

[As an aside, I'd like to draw your attention to the section of the Amazon.com page for the book titled "Customers who searched for "The Power to Save the World" also expressed interest in:"- if this is any indication of the book's readership it may not be reaching nuclear power skeptics much. I really hate to see Cravens' book associated with dreck like The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism).]

Bill Richardson: 20 Years Behind the Times, or My Candidate?

From the New Hampshire debate:

Governor RICHARDSON: Charlie, when I was secretary of Energy, that was one of my responsibilities, securing nuclear stockpiles, nuclear materials, mainly with the Soviet Union. And I went there many time; we made progress. But since then there's been a proliferation of loose nuclear weapons, mainly in the hands of terrorists, that could cross presumably a border, that could be smuggled in in a cargo ship with our very weak port security.

If I'm elected president, I will do two things. First, I will seek immediate negotiations with the Soviet Union and other nuclear states to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

As a student of nuclear policy I'm surprised to learn that lots of nuclear weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, but I'm much more surprised to learn that the Soviet Union still exists. I was under the impression that the USSR ceased to exist back in December 1991. However, Governor Richardson's policy platform may include a "revive the Soviet Union" plank of which I was unaware. Seeing as such a revival would do wonders for my job prospects as a sovietologist, I am naturally in favor of it.

I wonder what the positions of the other candidates are on reviving the USSR so we can initiate disarmament negotiations with it? ;)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Harvey Wasserman's Orwellian Redefinition of "Victory"

Harvey Wasserman's latest column, Anti-nuclear renaissance: a powerful but partial and tentative victory over atomic energy, is now available for your perusal over at FreePress.org. I had been wondering how Wasserman would spin the fact that nuclear power ended up receiving loan guarantees despite all the efforts of anti-nuclear campaigners to prevent it. And now we have our answer.

I'm personally quite confused. I'm having a hard time interpreting this development as anything but a "partial and tentative" disaster for NukeFree.org. Wasserman does have a few relevant points to make in his favor, most importantly that "the Appropriations Bill finally passed both houses of Congress in late December. But the legislative standing and ultimate outcome for the loan guarantees is murky at best, with legal and procedural experts still debating over what exactly has been done. ... Robert Alvarez, a former long-time employee of the Energy Department, now Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the nature of the provision leaves the legal standing of the guarantees in limbo and could “paralyze (some say strangle) the loan program.”

But this is certainly not a given, and in fact events could swing in the exact opposite direction: Wasserman admits that "Based on the 2005 Energy Act, the $18.5 billion can be seen as just a benchmark number, with the DOE technically capable of issuing all the guarantees it wants. Long-standing Congressional procedures may also be used to interpret the submission requirement as merely informational, granting Congress no power to stop the DOE from issuing the guarantees once they're reviewed."

Unfortunately, the argument devolves into bizarre, nonsensical assertions like
"With the guarantees, reactor builders will be insulated from all that, and could simply build as many plants as the Congress is willing to underwrite. That the Congressional Budget Office has predicted a 50% default rate on these proposed loans, may be of no consequence to them. They could simply suck as much available capital into new reactors as the DOE will underwrite."

Wasserman claims this despite the fact that he admitted earlier in the column that the loan guarantees only cover 80% of costs- so any prospective reactor builders stand to lose billions of their own dollars if they fail to complete their projects. NEI's analysis pointed out that this would ensure that no utility would begin one of these projects without every intent of completing it. Indeed, it's difficult to fathom where the Congressional Budget Office got its 50% figure from. I tried to find documentation on the CBO website explaining this figure, but I was unable to find an analysis supporting what seems to be a vastly overinflated figure.

The greatest logical gaffes, however, occur towards the end of the column:

But without those guarantees, the pro-nuclear renaissance will die in a puff of radioactive hype. "As fossil fuels diminish in supply, and are curtailed due to global warming, no new reactors will be built here. All available capital for new energy supply must flow instead to renewables and efficiency."

I have a hard time believing that Wasserman is unaware of the current scramble for so-called "clean" fossil fuel energy technologies, which are the actual competition of new nuclear plants. Although natural gas and oil supplies are waning, the United States possesses massive supplies of coal, and is the site of the world's greatest reserves of this resource. So resource depletion is not going to impact the coal industry anytime soon.

"According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, some $6 billion in new wind farms are currently under construction in this country. Billions more are pouring in solar, bio-fuels, ocean thermal, wave, tidal and other forms of green power. "

It is true that billions of dollars are being invested in renewables, although this does not necessarily mean that renewables are market winners in any sense. Far more so than nuclear, renewable energy is dependent on Government intervention to survive. Renewables get loan guarantees, tax credits, and most importantly, mandates. Would utilities be investing so much of their capital in renewable energy without inflexible mandates demanding that they purchase these technologies? I seriously doubt it.

It is interesting, however, that Wasserman mentions the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It just so happens that I just read a PowerPoint presentation made by Dr. Dan E. Arvizu, the director of the NREL, at a conference back in September. This presentation contains a very interesting slide (page 5 of the .pdf) regarding the future of America's electrical generation industry. In the most optimistic scenario, about 25% of America's electricity is projected as coming from renewable sources by 2040. Take note of the fact that the optimistic scenario calls for maintaining current nuclear generation capacity- which in the 2040 timeframe implies the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. Indeed, the slide argues that new nuclear power plants are not regarded by the NREL as a threat to expanded renewable generation.

"Indeed, if this tuneful victory over Pete Domenici's single-sentence insertion into the Energy Bill of 2007 holds through the end of 2008, it may someday be remembered as a landmark step toward a green-powered Earth. "

I'm not sure what "tuneful" means, but given the technical and economic impossibility of Wasserman's energy vision, I'm personally quite confident that this will not be the case.